Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurucharan Das - A Review

I had actually been asking this question for more than year now, “Can one be a good person”, so when I came across this book “the difficulty of being good” and flipped across it’s preface, I came to know that the book’s on Mahabharata and it’s relevance in our day to day life. No wonder that I gave it a try.

The epic Mahabharata has an interesting claim, it boasts itself to be so extensive and comprehensive that it quotes itself by a phrase saying

“What is here is found elsewhere.
What is not here is nowhere.”

I certainly would love to test the credibility of that phrase but just as I was thinking that, one of the chapters sprung up with the practice of polyandry in India, which is the practice of having more than one husband. I have heard of the practice of polygamy, which is the practice of marrying more than one wife happening in a lot of places in India but I never knew that polyandry was practiced in the stretches of Himalayas. By the way, if you are asking the question “where is the presence of polyandry in Mahabharata?” then I should say that it was there in front of our eyes for the taking. The 5 Pandava brothers married Draupadi making it one of the most well known and visible practice of polyandry.

To add one more, what about the presence of Eunuch, a human who is neither man nor woman, then we go to the ninth day of Mahabharata, the day when the invincible Bhishma is slayed down by tricky means with twenty five arrows from Arjuna. Shikhandi, one amongst the Pandava troops, was born a female but later changed his sex to a male making him an Eunuch. Bhishma had long back taken an owe that he won’t kill a women or someone who had been a women and hence Shikhandi was made a tool to slay down Bhishma. One more instance to substantiate Mahabharata’s claim.

All through Mahabharata, the projected heroes have always been Arjuna, Karna or Bhishma but the real hero who has been an un-hero throughout is by far the second son of Pandavas, Yudhisthira, the only person who upholds Dharma till the very end. Except for that one half truth to Drona, his life has really been impeccable.

Right from the title to the very end of the book, Mr. Gurucharan Das always keeps emphasizing that Dharma is subtle and that there is no clear definition of right and wrong or good and bad but it goes without saying that the Dharma has failed more than just once. From the rigged game of dice with Shakuni, the stripping of Draupadi in front of all the kyshatriya kinsmen, the exile of Pandavas for 13 years and later denial of even 5 villages for the Pandavas, Dharma had failed to uphold itself miserably for the Pandavas. But hang on, even the Kauvravas had been let down by Dharma, all it’s Army heads, be it Bhishma, Drona, Karna or even Duryodhana had been killed by unfair means. When it was always projected that the Pandavas are the good side and the Kauvravas are the bad side, the mode of Pandavas victory in Mahabharata was always kept without much focus or attention.

Hence is it that the ends are more important than the means?

Finally, what does Mr. Das conclude by his euphemism that Dharma is subtle, just the simple fact that you can only be as good as your neighbour wants to be.

To conclude, I would say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it was definitely an eye opener as far as knowing the facts of Mahabharata is concerned. Analyzing the events of Mahabharata from different angles and perspectives and bringing out the different shades of the various characters in Mahabharata was certainly exhilarating. Like say, I never knew that Karna had such a strong sense of attraction towards Draupadi that he was not able to take the fact that she rejected Karna in her swayamvara for being a Charioteer’s son. Hence, keeping this incorrigible insult in the bottom of his heart and probably with a tinge of lust, it’s Karna who orders Draupadi to be stripped in front of all the kyshatriya kinsmen. This was indeed a very strong negative shade of Karna that I never knew.

However, on the other side of the coin, I should say that the attempt to connect the recent history to the events and characters of Mahabharata had too much of a subjective impulse to it. Like say comparing Sonia Gandhi to Bhishma was taking it too far away or comparing Satyam’s Ramalinga Raju to Dhritarashtra by saying that Raju could have done it for the love he had for his two sons was too far fetched.

On the whole, a good book to read and I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who would want to know about Mahabharata.


Madan Bharadwaj said...

terrific review. loved it.

have you read "games indians play" by v.ragunathan? it is another take on dharma. essentially, it applies a concept called prisoners dilemma to day to day social situations. the essence of prisoners dilemma is if both you and your neighbor do the right thing, you will both be better off, but you can't tell if your neighbor will do the right thing, so you do the wrong thing and so does your neighbor and you are both worse off.

and the indian answer is to problem dharma. or do your duty, irrespective of reward.

so raghunathan concludes by saying, some rishi 1000's of years back without modern behavioral and economic sciences to help, came to the right mathematical conclusion and encoded it in our culture mores through this thing called dharma.

to this day, it lives.

JB said...

its a fantastic review manoj
U have done a gr8 job
I wish I could have the skill
that U have
keep doing such the good things

Really appreciable!!!!!!!!

Manoj said...

@ Madan

well what you had just said is what Yudhistra keeps saying throughout the epic. But the differece in Mahabharat is that it keeps portraying divine intervension to save dharma, which is not something u may experience in the real world .. Anyhow your Rishi's point is that when u see to it that a majority of the ppl are good then the system would function smoothly but when that equation changes the system would indeed go foor a toss. Probably thats the need to create a culture and create a God and create a heaven and a hell .. so that ppl are forced to think in good terms even though they may not be naturally inclined to ..

Just look at teh real world .. how many people have been named Yudhistra .. but u would come across many ppl being named Arjun, Karna, Krishna .. just goes to show the real interest of upholding dharma amongst the common junta .. So yes .. ur Rishi had indeed done the right thing by encoding dharma in culture ..

Deepa said...

stupendous review definitely makes me want to read the book. as you rightly said, our knowledge of the story is only superficial and the realm of dharma is so volatile indeed!

Aravind said...

Have read "Games Indians Play" ... Very good one on behavioral sciences ... I feel that the quest of humans to seek determinism in everything is the main reason for majority of the people not understanding Dharma or what morality is (To the extent that Dharma or morality is construed to be conservative and non progressive in the modern society). Dharma is trivialized to state laws.
In its simplest form Dharma can be represented as protecting your freedom and upholding your rights while not denying the same to others. It infers restraint of once own rights or freedom to uphold the space that others deserve. The Rishi's ingrained this in our DNA 1000's of years back ... parts of which still exist is my hope.
In an indidualist society the above can never be practised. Devoid of Dharma, it comes upon the state to write laws for every damn behavior of its citizens, enforcement of which becomes all the more difficult; leading to a failed state.
In essence I just wanted to suggest that Dharma is an optimal tool to maintain the social fabric without stretching it.
PS - Our ancestors had a much mature and superior understanding of social governance than we could ever imagine. To the extent that we are ignorant of what we dont know and we are proud of it.

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